The Original Proposal
What is quantitative literacy? How do you teach it? How do
you measure it? How can you develop a program that will ensure
that all undergraduates have it by the time they graduate?
During the academic year 200102, faculty from Macalester
College wrestled with these questions and found answers. These
have led to a pilot program, Quantitative Methods for Public
Policy (QM4PP), that is currently running at Macalester with
funding from the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement
of Post-Secondary Education and the National Science Foundation's
Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Instruction program.
The QM4PP program is interdisciplinary. It involves courses
from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. It is
also cohesive. The focus is on public policy, and all courses
use the same policy issue as a source of illustrations and
applications. All students from all of the participating courses
come together one evening per week to hear experts debate
the policy issue and to talk about their own use of quantitative
methods in analyzing options. The policy topic changes on
a regular basis. While a core of courses participate each
year, there are departments that participate only when the
topic is particularly relevant. This is a mechanism for drawing
in a variety of less quantitative departments.
Viewing quantitative methods through the lens of policy analysis
is a strong motivator for students, especially those who are
"math averse," demonstrating the power of quantitative
methods in a context they recognize as important.
[return to top]
Macalester College has no graduation requirement in mathematics.
While close to 75% of our students do take some mathematics;
many of the remaining students intentionally avoid any courses
that are at all quantitative. Sizeable numbers of our students
graduate without the basic understanding of hypothesis testing,
correlation, rates of change, or discounting that would enable
them to be critical readers of the popular press. For a campus
that prides itself on civic engagement and the examination
of political issues, this had become a matter of concern to
many of the faculty.
The inability to critique quantitative arguments was recognized
as a problem not just for the students who had avoided mathematics.
It was clear that all our students, even mathematics and economics
majors, would benefit from a program that directly addressed
During 200102, fifteen faculty from across the college,
but representing mostly the sciences and social sciences,
met every other week to create a program that would address
this problem. Some of the criteria that emerged from the first
meetings were that our program would have to be
- Interdisciplinary, involving many different departments,
- Well structured and focused. We were not interested in
a program that only gave a "quantitative" designation
to an assortment of courses,
- Built on existing courses. In a small college there is
little flexibility to create permanent new courses, and
what flexibility exists is jealousy guarded by each department,
- Tied to Macalester's traditional emphasis on civic engagement
and interest in public affairs.
It was decided that each year we would select an important
issue which could be used as a source of examples of quantitative
methods used in public policy debate and as a unifying theme
for all participating courses.
We also sought to provide all students with a survey of the
fundamental quantitative ideas that arise regularly in public
debate. These were grouped into three broad categories:
- Chance: statistical hypothesis testing, sampling,
experimental design, measures of correlation.
- Change: percentages and rates; marginal versus
average rates; linear versus exponential growth; importance
of units; estimation.
- Trade-offs: cost/benefit and cost/effectiveness
analysis; other mathematical techniques for comparison.
An early proposal was to require all participating courses
to spend some time on each of these topics. The problem was
that we were using existing courses that already had full
syllabi. There was little flexibility to add the remaining
topics that were not traditional.
The solution was to create an evening time when all students
from all participating courses come together. It can be thought
of as a common laboratory section for all participating courses.
Some of the evenings are devoted to introduction of quantitative
tools in the context of the public policy issue. Other evenings
provide background in the policy issue or bring in speakers
who can address the issues and illustrate how quantitative
tools are used to bolster their own arguments.
The first year of the program was 200203. The policy
topic was the school voucher debate. Six departments participated:
Communication Studies (introductory journalism), Economics
(principles of economics), English (college writing), Geography
(methods of geography), Mathematics (introductory statistics,
discrete mathematics), and Political Science (empirical research
methods). Some did so on a voluntary basis: encouraging but
not requiring their students to attend the evening class.
One hundred students enrolled in the evening class in the
fall, seventy in the spring.
In the second year, 200304, the focus is on immigration
policy. Only four departments are participating, but all now
require their students to attend the evening class: Economics
(principles of economics), Geography (urban geography), Mathematics
(introductory statistics), and Political Science (economics
and the law).
[return to top]
and learning objectives
The purpose of this program is to give students an appreciation
for the role of quantitative methods in deciding questions
of public importance as well as the ability to think critically
about quantitative arguments made by others. These issues
are not addressed in any other courses, and so our intention
is to make participation in this program a graduation requirement.
No other course in mathematics or any other department would
satisfy this requirement.
The evening class does not attempt to teach how to measure
a correlation or calculate a net present value. When a quantitative
technique is taught, that is done within the participating
course. The evening class is designed to acquaint students
with the concepts and vocabulary of quantitative analysis.
Its purpose is to help students learn how to critique a position
paper that relies on quantitative analysis.
The QM4PP program as a whole has three broad goals:
1. Introduce all students to basic methods of quantitative
analysis in a context that illustrates usefulness in thinking
about issues of public importance,
2. Enable students to think critically about quantitative
arguments that are presented in defense of a position on an
issue of public importance,
3. Assist faculty from all disciplines to understand the
relevance of quantitative methods to their own scholarship,
and enable them to make connections to quantitative methods
in their classes.
The first goal is quantitative literacy in the broad sense.
We want our students to see and appreciate its usefulness.
The public policy piece is an important part of the program.
It receives as much attention as the quantitative topics in
terms of choosing speakers, presenting the issues, and engaging
students in wrestling with the questions that arise in the
policy topic. What is unique about our program is that the
quantitative literacy is embedded within this policy debate.
The second goal gets to the heart of this program. We want
our students to learn how to critique a statement made in
a newspaper or by a proponent of a particular position. We
want them to know the basic terminology, the kinds of questions
to ask when judging the validity of an argument based on numbers,
and where they can turn for deeper explanations. These skills
are important for all students, even those in traditionally
quantitative majors. It is because of the centrality of this
second goal that students are not able to satisfy this requirement
with any other course in mathematics or any other quantitative
The third goal is unusual among quantitative literacy programs,
but it is an important part of how we see QM4PP and itsr mission
within the college. Quantitative literacy is not just a goal
for the students. Appreciation for and a reasonable level
of comfort with quantitative tools are aspects of quantitative
literacy that we would like to pervade all of our campus.
Our program is designed specifically to encourage and support
participation by faculty who normally would not teach courses
with a quantitative component. The intention is to foster
community-wide appreciation of the power and pitfalls of arguments
that call on numbers.
There are two important aspects of the program that were
made possible by the funding from the Department of Education.
The first is an annual workshop built around the policy topic
for the following year and designed to acquaint a broad range
of faculty with how quantitative methods come into play in
thinking about this issue. The second consists of support
personnel who are available to help quantitatively literate
faculty tie their courses to the policy topic, and to help
non-quantitative faculty who are interested in the topic to
see how they can bring quantitative ideas into their own syllabi.
There are two faculty providing this support. One is a faculty
member who is released one from one course each year specifically
for this purpose. The other is someone hired with the title
of "Policy Associate." He teaches one of the participating
classes each semester and the remainder of his time is devoted
to supporting other faculty engaged in the program.
[return to top]
into the program
At the time this article is being written, we are in the
second year (200304) of the piloting of the program.
Ten classes are participating this year. Each requires its
students to attend the Wednesday evening classes and to participate
in the program. Many of these classes are part of multi-section
courses. For this year, students have some choice of whether
to enroll in a section that participates in the program or
one that does not.
Our intention is to make enrollment in at least one participating
QM4PP class a graduation requirement for all Macalester students,
and one that cannot be satisfied by any other courses. We
hope that this requirement will be in place by the summer
[return to top]
We are still in the pilot phase of developing the QM4PP program,
so some of the program details may be changed or modified
in the future. But having run it for over a year, we now have
a fairly good idea of its structure. For 200304, the
focus is on immigration policy, and the title for this year
is Policies Affecting the Immigrant Experience in Minnesota.
Because immigration policy is such a rich topic, we expect
to continue to explore questions related to immigration in
200405. In addition to the departments that are participating
this year, American Studies, Anthropology, English, History,
Psychology, and Spanish all teach courses that deal with immigrant
issues. We hope to be able to entice some of them into the
second year of focus on immigration.
Preliminary planning for the coming academic year begins
with a two-day workshop in late January. This is an opportunity
to assess the progress of the current year's program and make
adjustments before we run it a second time in the spring semester.
It also is intended to identify faculty preferences for the
questions and choice of emphasis for the following year. It
is at this workshop that we seek commitments from faculty
for engagement in the QM4PP program the following year. Those
who are participating for the first time receive a $2500 stipend
over the summer for the additional work required to adapt
their class so that it takes full advantage of the program.
The primary planning workshop runs for three days and is
held in early summer. We bring in potential speakers for the
coming year as well as other experts in the field. The structure
of these workshops has been to spend two days learning about
the policy questions. The first day is devoted to establishing
a broad understanding of the topic. The second day focuses
on questions that have a strong quantitative component. These
might include work that raises questions about experimental
design and hypothesis testing or analysis of economic costs
and benefits. We also bring in people who can discuss relevant
databases and talk about how to access and use them.
At this stage, we are working with local experts. Our close
association with the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public
Affairs at the University of Minnesota is particularly helpful.
Their faculty have provided some of the expertise and have
helped to identify others in government, academe, and the
non-profit sector who can illuminate the issues and show how
quantitative methods actually are used.
The third day is the real workday. This is when we sketch
out the sequence of topics for the coming fall. We determine
the questions that will be the primary focus of the coming
year, the speakers we wish to invite, the quantitative questions
that we will choose to highlight. Most of the speakers that
we will ask to address our students are local experts, but
we also try to identify one or two individuals who are nationally
recognized for their work on the policy issue.
Our workshops have benefited from the presence of interested
faculty from other colleges and universities as well as high
school teachers. These have been faculty who have been interested
in learning about our program and searching for ideas that
they can carry back to their own institutions. Currently,
while our program has federal funding, we are able to pay
the costs of participation for these individuals as part of
our outreach and dissemination. Our intention is that as our
program gains in expertise and experience, the outreach and
dissemination piece of these workshops will grow, possibly
paying for itself or attracting additional funding.
[return to top]
All students in all participating classes are required to
register for the common evening class, held Wednesday evenings
from 7:00 to 8:30 PM. Students who have previously taken the
evening class are exempt from registering for it, but their
instructor in the participating class may still require their
attendance for particular evenings. The common evening class
carries 1 credit (1/4 of a normal class's credit). Students
receive a pass/fail grade for it.
One faculty member is in charge of the evening class, but
there is almost always a different person who does the presentation.
Often there will be team of two faculty that presents the
evening's topic. The topics are split roughly in half between
those that are primarily quantitative and those that focus
on the policy question.
We have thirteen Wednesday evening classes in the fall semester.
The schedule for fall, 2003 is representative of how the semester
QM4PP syllabus for fall, 2003
September 3 Introduction to course, introduction
to issues of migration
September 10 pre-test assessment, guest speaker
on US immigration laws: Gatekeeping Nation: U.S.
Immigration Policy in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
September 17 rates of growth, average vs. marginal
September 24 trade-offs
October 1 guest speaker on economic impact of
immigration: Estimating the economic impact of
immigration: how and why to do it
October 8 guest speaker on reasons for more
restrictive immigration policies
October 15 sampling and hypothesis testing.
Give out articles for individual critiquing (major group
project for course assessment)
October 22 (before fall break)
October 29 what to look for when critiquing
the quantitative components of articles and opinion
pieces. Groups begin to build common critique of assigned
November 5 correlation and causation
November 12 detection
November 19 polling issues, web sites with data,
information, and opinions
November 26 (before Thanksgiving)
December 3 Cost Benefit Analysis and net present
December 10 faculty debate
December 17 final assessment
Macalester College prides itself on its small classes. Classes
of over thirty students are unusual. In contrast, the common
evening class is now running with close to 200, and eventually
should reach over 300 students. The first part of each evening
is devoted to a presentation of the topic, which can take
as much as 45 minutes. To foster interaction among the students
and to provide some sense of individualized instruction, the
students then break into groups of approximately six students
each. The groups are created to include students from as many
different classes as possible. Here the students work on activities
that allow them to explore the ideas they have just seen and
to help cement their understanding of the topic from the previous
week. Faculty from the participating classes circulate to
answer questions. We also plan on developing a cadre of undergraduate
preceptors with experience in the program who can assist and
help guide the individual groups.
Each group is also given a semester-long project to complete.
For the 200304 year, this consists of an in-depth critique
of a controversial position paper or journal article.
[return to top]
We have retained a professional consultant for assessment.
In addition, a Macalester faculty member is responsible for
the actual assessment that takes place on campus.
Since the focus of our program is to be able to critique
statements made by others, that is also the primary focus
of our assessment. At the beginning of each semester, the
students in the program are given newspaper articles, randomly
assigned, which they are asked to critique. At the end of
the semester, as part of their final examination, these same
articles are included in a slightly larger set, and the articles
are again randomly distributed. Students are asked to critique
two of the articles.
In addition, focus groups and interviews with individual
students are held near the end of the semester or during the
following semester to gather information on student perceptions
of what they learned, the value of the experience, and improvements
that could be made. Our assessment also includes a piece of
a larger study being conducted in preparation for our next
accreditation review. Fifteen members of the class of 2007
have been selected for a longitudinal study of their development.
Each semester, each student is interviewed individually. The
study explores impressions of and attitudes toward the undergraduate
experience, including the student's own sense of personal
[return to top]
commitment and participation
The foundations of this program lie in the departments of
Mathematics and Economics. This has built on a tradition of
strong cooperation between these departments. The faculty
of both departments see the need for this program and have
been willing to participate. In addition, the chairs of the
departments of Geography and Political Science have supported
the development of this program and have ensured that their
departments participate. We have also had participation from
individuals in Communication Studies (Introduction to Journalism)
and English (one section of College Writing).
Other departments with an interest in the policy issues we
have studied have participated in the planning workshops or
assisted with evening presentations. These include the departments
of Anthropology, Dramatic Arts and Dance, Education, History,
Psychology, Sociology, and Spanish.
Our greatest obstacle so far has been the reluctance of many
departments to require the additional component of the evening
course while it is still unproven. Until the program has run
long enough that it has established a reputation for being
useful and interesting, departments that attract math-averse
students will be reluctant to require it.
On the other hand, we have received nothing but good will
from all members of the faculty. We have been careful not
to convey the impression that quantitative methods are the
only or the principal foundation for policy decision-making.
Even those faculty members who are themselves math-averse
recognize the value of what we are doing.
[return to top]
Because our program is funded by the US Department of Education
and the National Science Foundation, outreach and dissemination
are important responsibilities. While it is not clear whether
any other institution could import our program as it stands,
we do hope that our unique approach may provide a model and
inspiration that others can adapt to their individual needs,
drawing on the materials that we are developing to teach quantitative
literacy in the context of a focused question of national
Our website, www.macalester.edu/qm4pp,
contains links to Power Point slides from the evening presentations,
worksheets, and other materials from the evening class.
Faculty from other colleges and universities are welcome
to attend the planning workshops as either observers or participants.
Until the summer of 2006, we have funding to help underwrite
the cost of attending these workshops. We also have a few
small subgrants to give out under our NSF-CCLI grant. These
can be used to pay an individual who will spend time learning
about our program, looking for how it might be shaped to fit
the needs of another institution, and possibly writing a grant
proposal to NSF for Adaptation and Implementation.
Another important piece of our outreach is to secondary teachers,
especially secondary teachers in the social sciences. They
also will be involved in the summer planning workshops, with
an additional day devoted to their particular needs, showing
them how they can bring an awareness of quantitative literacy
and its role in understanding important public issues into
their own classes.
[return to top]
The website for this project is at http://www.macalester.edu/qm4pp
Project director: David
Associate director: Danny
Policy Associate: Steve Holland, firstname.lastname@example.org
Evening class and assessment coordinator: Dave
[return to top]